EDUCATION

The winners and losers of Murphy’s new school funding law

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Andrea Katz feels elated. The Chesterfield parent’s got three kids in elementary school in what used to be the most underfunded district in New Jersey at just 9.5 percent of what it was supposed to get under the state formula. But after waging years of protest, Chesterfield’s finally in the money. Under the funding reform law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy Tuesday, it’ll get $1.6 million more this year — a 193 percent boost in state school aid. Katz is giddy with anticipation.

“They’re going to have new books and computers and science kits,” she said. “They’re going to be able to give the kids some of what they’ve been missing.”

Chesterfield’s elementary school suffered through a decade of declining aid while its enrollment tripled to 780. Despite building a new school building in 2011, the district’s got leaks in the bathroom and a closet full of busted desks. It collected box tops to buy books. They cancelled music performances.

“My third grade daughter has been waiting years to play the recorder on stage. That was devastating to her, to not have that opportunity. The first and second graders would sing in the chorus. That was done. We didn’t have a play. We didn’t have anything,” said Katz.

Wednesday, the board will vote on a shopping list of long-deferred upgrades.

“We’ll be buying new books. That hasn’t been purchased in, I don’t even remember how long ago,” Chesterfield Board of Education President Jignesh Shah said. “We’re going to have a school counselor, finally. We are also improving some of our curriculums.”

The increase brings Chesterfield to 58 percent of the state aid it’s due under the formula. The district wants to spend $215,000 of it on a tax refund for residents who paid soaring tax rates.

“Our taxpayers have had that burden for a couple years now, so a very small portion is going back to the community,” said Shah.

“That’s what I’m talking about, the money grab. Now, the money’s in your pot. Totally different situation. Now they’re saying, ‘We want to give this for tax relief now, we don’t want it to go to the kids,'” said Pemberton School District Superintendent Tony Trongone.

Trongone’s a bit critical. Pemberton sits on the losing side of the state aid equation, caught in the political push to fairly adjust the funding formula. Overall, 391 districts got an increase, 171 got reduced state aid and 14 stayed the same. Pemberton Township, a former Abbott district, will see its state aid slashed by $1.3 million this year.

“It undermines the credibility of how our team runs the school district, knowing that we have to make cuts in July. There’s no planning to it,” Trongone said.

Pemberton’s got 4,800 kids, from pre-K through 12. Anticipating funding cuts, Trongone slashed $900,000 in staff back in May and hoped for the best. Now he’s going to ask the state for a $470,000 emergency grant to pay for school programs he’s loath to kill.

“I think our chances aren’t very high, but again, we have to put that in because of its impact on programs,” he said.

The reform law shifts school funding over the next seven years. Ultimately some districts will have to confront raising taxes.